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Wordwars. Watergate and the Iran-contra affair

By Stanley I. Kutler / September 10, 1987

LANGUAGE shapes historical memory. Metaphors, slogans, catchy quotes contribute to the resonance and recall of events, offering images that groove into the hard disk of individual historical recollections. Given the paucity of memorable words and phrases, the historical future of the Iran-contra affair may be in jeopardy. The Iran-contra hearings have generated only scattered bits and pieces of interesting imagery. William Casey favored ``off the shelf,'' ``stand alone,'' ``self-sustaining operations.'' Of course, that is only hearsay. His ``friends'' have put many words in his mouth, but he is without the means of ``plausible denial.''

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Lt. Col. Oliver North talked about being a ``good marine'' who followed orders, but Stanley Kubrick's ``Full Metal Jacket'' might make the definition ambiguous, even dubious. Colonel North also described (endlessly, it seemed) ``residuals,'' but that was a euphemism. Had he said ``profits,'' America might have understood - and forgiven - more.

Perhaps the best one-liner came from North's lawyer, who asked the committee in mock exasperation whether he was a ``potted plant.'' Ironically, though, what might be best remembered is the line ``I cannot recall.''

The affair has not, of course, been without historical analogy. Newsweek magazine had no sooner declared Richard Nixon ``rehabilitated'' than President Ronald Reagan inadvertently unleashed memories of the other Nixon. Mr. Nixon may have been ``back,'' as the magazine said; but soon, too, were memories of Watergate. Poor Richard.

THE unforgettable imagery of Watergate shaped much of the Iran-contra agenda. From the outset we wondered what to call it. Irangate? This imitation lacked the flavor of the original. Who remembers Koreagate and Debategate?

Titles aside, a Watergate chestnut framed the basic issue: ``What did the President know, and when did he know it?'' In case anyone has forgotten, one of Nixon's greatest defenders and now, coincidentally, Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, originated that Watergate leitmotif.

The Iran-contra characters are relatively bland, their admissions of guilt self-serving. Their language is dull and - dare we say it? - boring: It offers none of the arresting imagery and insight of Watergate. Little of the sound and sight has been memorable, laughable, or affecting in a human way.

Compare Adm. John Poindexter's blank face to the sneers, scowls, jutting jaw, and constant animation that characterized John Ehrlichman's visage. Sen. Daniel Inouye simply does not have the eyebrows or jowls to rival Sam Ervin's plastic expressions. Senator Inouye has eloquence, but where are those measured cadences quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, Uncle Ephraim?

The civics and constitutional instructions of Iran-contra have been invaluable, but the boredom of Watergate junkies has been unrelieved by their fleeting glimpses of Betsy North. They remember the cameras lingering on Mo Dean, the Ice Maiden. They groaned when Admiral Poindexter could offer nothing more dramatic than ``the buck stops here.'' Imagine, reduced to pilfering a Harry Truman line! Small potatoes.

Watergate offered a rich canvas for the display of unforgettable language that has evolved into a lexicon of its own. The honored starting place goes to ``Watergate'' itself, a term safely ensconced in every modern dictionary. It ``stands alone,'' to turn a phrase - and it even divides like an amoeba to provide a suffix for all seasons.

At the time of the ``break-in,'' presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler promptly labeled it ``a third-rate burglary.'' Eventually that statement, like others, became ``inoperative,'' according to Mr. Ziegler. All that, of course, stemmed from Nixon's desire to make everything ``perfectly clear.''